Let’s say you’re walking through a field and you quite unexpectedly hear a bird making all sorts of racket, and when you look for the bird you find this:
A not-too-small creature scrambles along the ground, its wings held in unnatural positions—perhaps one fluttering violently with the other dragging on the ground. The bird’s piercing cries fill the air as it struggles to get away, the bright colors of its spread tail making an obvious target. You note the poor thing seems hardly able to move.
You assume rather quickly that the bird is in distress, that one or both of its wings are broken, that it’s trying to escape with what little life it has left.
You assume incorrectly.
The broken wing display happens to be a polished, meticulous, masterful performance that killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) have turned into art. As a diversionary device, no other species can claim the convincing flair and variability that killdeer display.
Now imagine you’re a predator stalking that field. When a hobbled bird flutters into view and screams its heart out, you as a predator think “Easy meal!” and move in accordingly.
From the killdeer’s point of view, that’s the point. The trick is simple: tempt you away from the nest, away from eggs and/or young, then once you’re far enough away to pose no threat, fly into the air and escape—with the nest safe in the distance.
But you’re no predator. In fact, you not only understand the trick, you understand the species well enough to know you can get the protective parents to lead you right back to the nest.
So now imagine you ignore the broken wing display and edge closer in the direction you were walking, moving slowly so you don’t miss anything on the ground and so you can react if the birds stop engaging you.
As you walk, you notice one of the parents in the distance.
After an injured bird didn’t interest you and assuming next that you are intentionally looking for eggs or chicks, one of the avian parents gladly tries to mislead by running to a random spot far from the nest, settling in comfortably on the ground as though incubating eggs, folding tail and wings in a natural nesting position, then watching to see if you take the bait.
This is called false brooding. If you want to find a nest, they’ll happily give you one. An empty one.
You realize by then these are by no means dumb birds. Being able to provide a clear indication of a nest as a diversionary tactic no doubt works well for those unaware of the killdeer’s ability to adapt its protective approach.
Remember, though, you’re not unaware of such things. You put your knowledge to work and within minutes have the true nest location.
Finally, imagine you approach it carefully and in trade for your invasion of their space, you get the threat display that inevitably is saved for those who come way too close after ignoring the other distractions.
By making itself larger and by charging you, the killdeer hope to dissuade you from bothering the nest. Should it not work outright, the birds also are known to fly up and strike the problem (with horses and cows and the like, it’s generally a strike to the face); this helps change the animal’s course and protect the brood.
And though I didn’t get photos of it, you can also be treated to the ungulate display. Meant to cause unaware animals to go a different route, this tactic looks much like the threat display except the fanned tail is held up over the back so brighter colors are visible, and also to increase the apparent size of the bird. Like all but the false brooding display, this comes with all manner of noise, including a throaty “growl” that seems in direct opposition to the usual peeping and kill-DEER noises these birds are known for.
[next: parent with eggs, then after that three chicks and an egg]
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As with the cicada-killer wasp I convinced to land on my hand repeatedly and to trust me without hesitation, getting a killdeer to lead me to its nest and to remain with the eggs without any protective display required nothing more than understanding the species. And as with the wasp or any other creature I’ve coaxed into a sense of security so I can get near it, I do not intend to share that methodology.
Knowing wildlife well enough to get close, to make contact, to get within reach is not so much a trade secret as it is information that can endanger creatures great and small. Bubba Smith looking to kill birds could use that to violate a killdeer nest, and Betty Sue wanting to smash a giant wasp could use it to attract a useful insect into a deadly trap.
The trick of nature photography—and the spirit of a true naturalist—hinges entirely on comprehension: understanding the natural history, traits and habits of that which you seek. It means appreciating it more, and it also means an ability to predict, to see through the veil of mystery.
I’ve shared the location of this killdeer nest with only a few other people: each of them, like me, would act vehemently to protect it. And as for the secret of how I “convinced” the killdeer to show me their most precious treasure… Well, let’s just say that information will probably follow me to the grave.